Black jurists to head Oklahoma's two highest courts
BY BARBARA HOBEROCK World Capitol Bureau
Friday, November 23, 2012
11/23/12 at 7:18 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY - For the first time in Oklahoma history, African-Americans will be leading the state's two highest appeals courts.
In January, Tom Colbert will become chief justice of the nine-member Oklahoma Supreme Court.
His law school classmate, David B. Lewis, will become presiding judge of the five-member Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
Colbert swore in Lewis when he was selected to the state's high court on criminal matters.
Both men were raised by single mothers, are former prosecutors and worked in private practice.
Both are runners - Colbert is a sprinter, while Lewis runs for distance.
And former Gov. Brad Henry appointed both as the first blacks to hold a post on their respective appeals courts.
Colbert said those who came before him and the sacrifices they made opened the door for him to become chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
As chief justice, he is responsible for overseeing district courts in the state's 77 counties. He views his role as one that goes beyond running the state Supreme Court, and he believes that mentoring is an obligation. He said a lot of people have helped him along the way.
Colbert said his grandfather once told him the only way to break the cycle of poverty is through education.
"There are great opportunities out there if you believe in yourself and try to stay on the right path," he said.
Lewis said it is an honor and a privilege to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
He said it is significant that African-Americans are leading the state's two highest appeals courts, but he said that didn't happen by happenstance or overnight.
Both judges have been on the bench a long time, Lewis said.
He noted that a very small number of cases that come before the Court of Criminal Appeals are reversed, which tells him the district courts are doing a pretty good job.
One of the top errors involves not prosecutorial misconduct but evidence, he said.
"Trial judges, to their credit, don't want to do these cases again, either," Lewis said.
Oklahoma is a death-penalty state, so the Court of Criminal Appeals handles some very serious cases.
But "quite frankly, if you are the citizen charged with a crime or a family member of someone charged with a crime or the victim of a crime, every case is weighty," Lewis said.
Both judges will face retention on a nonpartisan ballot. The question for voters, Lewis said, "should be: 'Are they a good judge or not?' "
Education: Sapulpa High School; associate's degree from Eastern Oklahoma State College; bachelor's degree from Kentucky State University; master's degree from Eastern Kentucky University; law degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Career: U.S. Army, teacher in Chicago, assistant dean at Marquette University Law School, Oklahoma County assistant district attorney, private practice attorney, Oklahoma Department of Human Services attorney, Court of Civil Appeals judge and Oklahoma Supreme Court justice.
David B. Lewis
Education: Ardmore High School; bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Oklahoma.
Career: Private practice attorney, Comanche County assistant district attorney, special judge, district judge and Court of Criminal Appeals judge.
Original Print Headline: Black jurists to head state's highest courts
Barbara Hoberock 405-528-2465
Incoming Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Colbert (left) and incoming Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge David Lewis stand in front of the Oklahoma Judicial Center in Oklahoma City. STU OSTLER/Legislative Service Bureau